Saturday, July 21, 2012

What Chess Taught Me About DMing.

It's an old trope that people who love the fantasy genre also love chess. Here, for your reading pleasure, are some chess concepts I find highly useful as a DM (and, arguably, in other pursuits as well).

1. "Tempo"

In the broadest of terms, "tempo" is simply the concept of time as a commodity. The idea is efficiency of movement. Do something simple that has a complicated effect. The difference, as a DM, is that I want to keep the ball in the players court rather keeping all the control to myself.

2. "Positional play."

The idea is simply to understand the value of an ideal long term position. Basically a move can be good in the long view even if it has no point in the short view of things. NPC's, magic items, and loose plot threads (whether instigated or neglected by the players) all have a way of proving useful in ways that you might not have originally intended - so, always keep them in the back of your mind!

3. "Sacrifice."

Sometimes the hardest thing to know is when to let go of something - particularly NPC's and Villains. But, if you do it right, the return (in terms of story interest) can be very high.

4. "Trap"

Can you find ways to complicate the plot by means of the character's own wants and desires? I bet you can.

5. "Draw by Three-fold Repetition"

In chess, if you let the same position occur three times of in a row, the game ends. The lesson? Never let things stagnate.

6. Lasker's Rule: "If you see a good move, stop and look for a better one."

Same with RPG plots. In my mind this has pragmatic application to my previous post about finding "The Edge". 

7. "Mikail Tal's Hippo Story"

I won't bother trying to fully retell the story, but basically, Mikhail Tal found himself in a tough spot in a high stakes championship match. The position was very complicated and he was unable to reason out the correct way to proceed. Suddenly he fell into an intense daydream about, of all things, figuring out how to remove a hippo from a swamp. He claims he actually saw the hippo floating in the middle of the chess board and became immersed in imagining complicated sets of imaginary riggings and pullies!

So what happened? Well, ultimately, he admitted to himself that there was no way he could intellectually solve the problem of the Hippo - it was simply too complex. As soon as he did so, the Hippo dissappeared and he suddenly, irrationally, just knew the correct move.

The lesson? Trust your intuition. In the end, your gut knows what is the best.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Thoughts on Character Creation.

It's been a while since I've posted (sorry Mike F!) and I thought this might be a good time to shift the topic. I've just ended a large campaign and am looking forward to getting to take a crack at being a player again!

So, naturally, I thought I'd post some thoughts on character creation. Here is my best advice.

Rule #1: Do something you will have fun with.

This might seem obvious, but I'm always surprised at how easy it is to over-think this point.

A pencil paper rpg has pragmatic realities that are attached to running a character - every class has it's own nuts and bolts stuff you have to deal with, each slightly different. In the end, there's no sense in saddling yourself to something you won't enjoy.

Rule #2: Strike a good balance between how you are TYPICAL of your class, but also how you are ATYPICAL.

The idea is that you want to embrace the nature of your class enough to be functionally sound, but also add enough spice to your concept to make it interesting to play.

For example, if you were playing a fighter who is only about fighting... let's face it, you might get a little bored. On the other hand, if you try to make your character TOO interesting - say you decide to play your fighter as a pacifist who refuses to enter combat under any circumstances - clearly this is just pointless and self defeating.

You might strike a balance by playing a soldier who has seen too much killing and see's no glory in bloodshed, choosing instead to venerate the ideal of diplomatic relations. Suddenly, you have an interesting twist on your fighting skills, but not so interesting that it will keep you from swinging a mean sword when you have to (and, I'm guessing you WILL have to...)

Other examples: I once played a bard who desperately wanted to prove himself a brilliant general. He was more bravado than blade, but it made for an fun time. Also, a good buddy of mine once had a great weapon master who was as tough and deadly as they come - and completely fastidiously about his appearance - almost OCD. He even refused to drink out of tavern mugs, preferring his own silver chalice.

Rule #3: Have a strong POV (Point of View).

There was a time where I might have used the term "goal" or "objective" for this rule - which is more typical of characters in movies, plays, and stories. Of course, the problem is that you might not know what an appropriate goal for the campaign might be. For example: you decide that your over-arching goal is going to be to kill the man who killed your parents, but your DM is starting a story about traveling under the sea to defeat and evil race of water-breathing monsters.

(The caveat to this is if a goal emerges from DM approved character creation, then, obviously, go for it!)

A strong point of view is, in many respects, superior to a specific goal - at least in the context of an RPG. It does two immediate things: first, it adds dimension to your character and, second, it provides a lens through which you see the world.

And it can be almost anything (though you may already have the seeds of it from the typical/atypical balance you have struck within your class). Put simply, a strong point of view is really just having a strong opinion about the world or about an aspect of the world.


Never trust a dwarf.
Gold is always worth it!
Those with power should never let innocents suffer.
Power should be in the hands of the people.
I care about me. End of story.

Take care to make sure you don't pick anything that will make it hard to participate in adventure. Thinking back to our example of the war-weary fighter: rather than having him detest combat, he might see the greater value in unity and diplomatic strength. This way, it's not that he's unwilling to fight, it's just that he places a high value on the idea of taking the high road. (And imagine how he would react to npc's or eve fellow pc's who revel in destruction or who are divisive by nature! Notice how the character has much more dimension than some brainless fighter who simply waits for the DM to bring on the next fight.)

Remember: stats alone do not make you an interesting character. Being an interesting character is what makes you an interesting character.

Rule #4: Embrace your flaws.

First, I mean this literally as I think playing a character with a bad stat is always interesting!

But I also mean this figuratively. To me, the worst thing about a meta-gamer is not necessarily that they are trying to find the loophole in the game or stay one step ahead of the DM, but rather that they are often less able to make interesting choices. Why? Because a meta gamer is inherently trying to come out on top. But, to me, doing something dumb just because your character would is simply more interesting. And keeping the game interesting is what's it's all about.

(See related entries: on Stupid Courage and Optimization Guides!)

Have fun chewing on that - and happy gaming!